Ballad of Narayama, The (1958)

Review #1,219

Director:  Keisuke Kinoshita
Cast:  Kinuyo Tanaka, Teiji Takahashi, Yûko Mochizuki
Plot:  In Kabuki style, the film tells the story of a remote mountain village where the scarcity of food leads to a voluntary but socially-enforced policy in which relatives carry 70-year-old family members up Narayama mountain to die.  Granny Orin is approaching 70, content to embrace her fate.

Genre:  Drama
Awards:  Nom. for Golden Lion (Venice).
Runtime:  98min
Rating:  PG
International Sales:  Shochiku

There's something funereal about Ballad of Narayama.  It feels like someone has died, when it is very much a journey towards death.  Based on the 1956 novella written by Shichiro Fukazawa, the film centers on a mountainous village stricken with poverty.  There's severe food shortage, and every additional mouth to feed is of tremendous burden to families.  To solve (or rather alleviate) the problem, an age-old tradition dictates that all elderly reaching 70 years old would have to climb up Mount Narayama to die.

That is really the plot of Keisuke Kinoshita's masterful rumination on themes of death, family and abandonment.  It is very depressing, but is essential viewing for all who love cinema.  Shot and staged in a studio set with intentional artifice – the intoxicating use of lighting, colour and music call attention to the film's formal qualities, Ballad of Narayama is something akin to a filmed play. 

A narrator introduces the story, and the curtains are drawn open to reveal a set.  The music seems to mirror a kind of 'live' effect, while lighting is dropped as we proceed to another chapter of the story.  Whilst I was seeing the film, I am constantly reminded of when I was little when I was brought by my grandparents to see traditional Teochew opera.

Kinoshita's Kabuki-inflected piece with a singing narrator and heavy use of shamisen (a plucked Japanese instrument often played by geishas) is perhaps one of the most prominent examples of cultural-specific cinema of the purest order.  It may also come across as uncomfortable, even dissonant to those without some cultural context. 

I must admit I was taken aback by the stage-like treatment and experimental form, but am enthralled by the performances, especially that of the legendary Kinuyo Tanaka (The Life of Oharu, 1952; Ugetsu, 1953) who plays Granny Orin.  Orin, approaching seventy, must make the ultimate sacrifice, but would it be a dignified exit?

In the golden age of Japanese cinema that was the 1950s, Ballad of Narayama is easily one of the period's most haunting works.  Shohei Imamura revisioned the story in a different, no less powerful, form that won the Cannes Palme d'Or in 1983.  But there's no taking away Kinoshita’s singular and innovative film that continues to be a monumental work of art.  A must-watch.

Verdict:  Staged with intentional artifice through an intoxicating mix of lighting, colour and music, Kinoshita’s monumental piece is easily one of the most haunting works of postwar Japanese cinema.


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